How one man’s punchable face may point the way forward for Big Pharma

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That trademarked Shkreli-Smirk: When you have a face designed by genetics and circumstance exclusively for punching, why not do the obvious thing and monetize?

A great truism of Commerce is: You’re never in the business you think you’re in.

Successful organizations in other sectors – look at Starbucks as one random example – are able to see beyond the obvious, to understand what customers want, and execute. And what they want, it always turns out, is not necessarily the mug of coffee. It’s the overall experience, the gestalt.

Unsuccessful corporations, conversely, meander toward their graves complaining that they are misunderstood, even as the last of their customer base vanishes.

(One very recent, and amusing, illustration of the preceding was provided by the Toronto Star newspaper publishing group. Panicked that traditional readers and advertisers continue to reject their core product, the company’s brain-trust is desperately seeking alternative revenue-generators. The latest example is their new effort to sell their own brand of packaged coffee directly to newspaper subscribers. It’s reasonable to examine Starbucks as a potentially inspirational strategic case-study, but who could possibly conclude from the exercise that it’s a dynamite idea to slap on a green apron and literally do what the baristas do?)

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If you can stomach the newspaper, perhaps the coffee may not bother you too much, either

One of the key questions we in the Life Sciences continue to ponder is, “What business are we supposed to be in, anyway?”

The answers, unavoidably, are complex.

We exist for the not-always-compatible purposes of returning sick people to health, and earning profits for investors.

We operate under rigorous regulatory scrutiny, and yet need to respond nimbly in real time to evolving public health concerns. 

We require robust and predictable economic performance in order to support ambitious research programs that will lead directly to new therapies needed for chronic illnesses. And we need to sell those remedies at a price-point that is acceptable to formularies and third-party payers.

And while reconciling each of those missions, we also need to maintain the goodwill of multiple constituencies that often seem to be permanently at odds with each other.

It’s one thing to give the people what they want, but there is also a required mandate to educate the public and the physicians who treat them. Over generations, patients have shown a strong willingness to spend their own money on nutritional supplements and natural products that have demonstrated dubious clinical efficacy. Yet preventative vaccines and curative pharmaceuticals are the ready subjects of conspiracy-theorists’ wacky speculation. (“What’s that, Mr. Trump? Vaccines caused an autism epidemic? If you say so, sir.”)

Small wonder, then, that there is little consensus among the best-intentioned Life Sciences managers regarding a logical course to follow. On the other hand, the worst-intentioned always seem to have a plan.

A year ago, we characterized Martin Shkreli, then the price-gouging CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, as an exemplar of our industry’s worst instincts and least defensible practices: the unacceptable face of the Life Sci sector. 

Therefore, we would not have anticipated that it might be the same Martin Shkreli who would lead the pharma industry toward a better understanding of how to transmute negative public sentiment into revenue.

He has proven himself to be a shrewd assessor of current monetization techniques. Acknowledging the axiom that you’re never in the business you think you’re in, he has astutely forsaken drug marketing, and instead entered a more promising endeavor, one with widespread interest. Creatively, he’s invited the public to bid for the right to haul off and punch him in the face.

Adding uncharacteristic philanthropy to his typical irony, he says he plans to use the funds from the opportunity toward the medical bills of a friend’s child. Regardless of motive, it’s plain that he understands public sentiment, as well as how to deliver a sought-after service. As this issue went to press, the top bid reached US$50,000. That will be a sum significant enough to capture the attention of companies’ new business development teams.

With barriers to entry being minimal and profit margins unsurpassable, it is a certainty that other pharma organizations will seek to copy Mr. Shkreli’s concept, and promote the availability of corporate officers for periodic sideline work as face-punch recipients.

As the potential to advance this fresh area of activity becomes more apparent, we would expect directors and shareholders to encourage the rapid development and deployment of in-house face-punching capabilities. Perhaps clinical trials should be initiated immediately, as it seems likely that data will confirm how administering a thump to the skull of executives such as Martin Shkreli may trigger feelings of contentment, if not euphoria, among patients.

Eventually it may prove a lucrative long-term strategy for organizations to bundle the annual cost of a patient’s drug regimen, with the ancillary right to deliver a cuff upside the noggin of a drug company representative. Should this become mainstream, our sector will owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. Shkreli, for revealing the actual underpinning of the pharma business in the 21st Century.

Drugmakers previously regarded suffering a black eye from a regulator or a litigator as just another risk factor, among many. Thanks to Mr. Shkreli’s pathfinding, it could become the industry’s very ticket to reinventing itself. Indeed, getting punched in the head may reveal a clarified role for our industry, one that will reveal our true core competency. 

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